After welcoming your foster son into your home, you noticed he seemed unreceptive to every attempt you made to form a connection with him. At first you probably thought, “Maybe he’s afraid of strangers.” As time goes by and his disposition doesn’t change, concern or even fear may lead to you discovering reactive attachment disorder (RAD), which is typically prevalent among children between the ages of 9 months and 5 years old.
Causes of RAD
To understand RAD, you need to have some knowledge of how the brain develops throughout infancy. When talking about how much an infant has grown, you’re likely talking about his physical growth. With such rapid and noticeable outward changes, it can be easy to forget how much cognitive development is occurring. During his first 2 years, he’s constantly forming new pathways and connections in his brain through interactions with people and objects.
Among the most important connections formed during these 2 years are the infant’s bond to parental figures. Caregivers create this bond through repeated positive interactions, such as playing with him and satisfying his basic physical and emotional needs. By being there for him, you’re helping him understand what a stable, healthy attachment is and how to form one.
When parents neglect the basic needs of a child who’s 3 years old or younger, they’re preventing the child’s developing brain from making important behavioral connections. Abuse or constantly changing caregivers during these ages can also stunt the brain’s development. Without these connections, he may not grow to form bonds or expect care.
Attachment problems can range from mild issues that are easily treated to severe cases where he is diagnosed with RAD. While RAD is a serious diagnosis, cases of it are rare and your foster son can make great strides in overcoming it. Unfortunately, if he has RAD, it won’t be an easy journey, as there will be ups and downs with plenty of heartbreak and tears. There can be times when your foster son no longer exhibits signs of RAD, but that doesn’t always mean it’s gone. Certain experiences may trigger an episode for your foster son, and for some it’s a lifelong battle. As with most conditions, the earlier that RAD caught, the easier it is to treat.
Signs of RAD
If you know your foster son was abused or neglected as an infant or toddler, look out for early indicators that he may have RAD. Some of the more common signs are not smiling, constant frowning and crying, not seeking to be comforted, not reaching out when picked up and watching others interact without joining them.
Many of these signs seem like qualities any child could exhibit, however, if you know he was abused or neglected during infancy and has any of these traits, talk to his caseworker about having him evaluated by a pediatric psychologist or psychiatrist. The doctor may find that he doesn’t have RAD but has another behavioral disorder.
As your foster son matures from infancy to early childhood, there are numerous ways he can act out that are characteristic of a child with RAD. He may display manipulative behavior, an excessive need for control, lying, stealing and potentially harming animals, among other traits. Around strangers he may come off as charming and affectionate, but when he’s alone with you, it can seem like a switch flips and his bad behavior returns.
Not only does your foster son lack a bond with you but he can also fail to connect with his classmates. Children with RAD tend to not have any close friends. While he can keep himself entertained, he may not have a desire to interact and play with other children. When your foster son does have to interact with them, he’s likely to control what the others are doing for his own entertainment.
Foster children with RAD often have trouble making the correct connection between the cause and effect of their actions. Rather than feeling punished for being put in timeout for behaving a certain way, your foster son may feel relieved because, to him, you have reaffirmed his belief that no one cares about him.
Some cases of RAD are so severe that they can lead to property damage or harm to members of the household, including pets. Before taking in a child with RAD make sure everyone in your support system is ready for the emotional challenges that lie ahead. There will be times when you’re fighting back tears and anger and other times when you’re overwhelmed with joy. In trying times, remember the magnitude of good you are doing for your foster son and where he could be without you. If the safety of those in your house becomes a concern, do not feel obligated to jeopardize anyone’s wellbeing. When these situations arise, reach out to your foster son’s caseworker and discuss the situation and possible options.
Helping Foster Children with RAD
When raising foster children with RAD, there’s no single surefire treatment method; each case can present its own challenges. The first step is to provide a stable living environment where your foster son has time to experience what positive attachment is like and to develop a bond with you.
• Building a personalized strategy with a therapist from the start will ensure that you’re using the appropriate methods for your foster son’s case. Forming a team with the therapist also makes it more difficult for him to manipulate and breakdown any one individual and provides you with someone to talk to who has an understanding of what you’re going through.
• As previously mentioned, avoid giving timeouts or grounding your foster son. Instead, give him “time-ins” when he acts out. During these “time-ins,” keep him close to you with the goal of making him communicate with you. This transforms his punishment from a form of isolation into a social interaction that may slowly build a connection between the two of you. During this time, it’s important to keep your cool no matter how unruly he acts.
• Avoid beginning sentences with “you” because it suggests that you know what’s going on inside him, as well as implies an accusation. Instead, begin sentences with “I,” such as “I am upset with what you did. I want you to sit with me for the next 5 minutes.” Verbalizing your emotions can help your foster son with RAD gain a better understanding of his own feelings. Also use “I” to support positive experiences by saying things like, “I am glad to see you and John playing together.”
• Sign him up for a team sport where he’s interacting with other children to help foster a bond among peers. This places him in a position where he’s not in control and demonstrates the value of positively interacting with others.
• Slowly introduce physical touch as a way of bonding. Start off with minor interactions, such as a quick pat on the back for doing something good. As he becomes more comfortable with these attachment experiences, gauge his comfort level and consider introducing other signs of affection, such as a hug.
• Constantly remind your foster son that it’s okay if he doesn’t know how to show affection to you and that you will always care for him, regardless of how he feels about you.
Due to your foster son’s experiences during infancy, his brain never had the opportunity to make emotional connections that most people take for granted. Through your attention and patience, you can help him make these connections and learn how to create relationships with others. There will be tears, anger, fear and times when you feel like giving up, but with persistence you may begin to see your hard work pay off.